Bestami Bilgiç, Professor of International Relations at Ipek University in Ankara, explained that until the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire extended its rule over large swathes of the Balkans that are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural. The memories of the first and second Balkan wars (1912-13 and 1921-22) are still vivid in the minds of Balkan societies and are a sign of mutual distrust between the regions. He noted that during these wars, many Muslims were killed and even more were deported.
The professor explained that, as a result of the Balkan wars, Muslims in the Balkans became minorities in nearly every country they lived in, with the exception of Albania, and that the existence of these minorities later influenced Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis the Balkans post-1923. Muslim populations, especially in Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania, continue to be living memories of the century-old interaction between Turkey and the Balkans, and so are the some 35 million Turks of Balkan origins. Bilgiç added that Turkey’s efforts in bringing together the Balkan countries to put on a united front against the threat to peace and stability in the region, due to Italian expansion towards the Balkans, culminated in the signing of the Balkan Pact in 1934.
He argued that a nation’s foreign policy is very much dictated by its military and economic powers, and without these, a country must rely on other factors, and this was the case for Turkey during the Cold War. As well as providing economic help to the Balkans and encouraging Turkish businessmen to do business in the Balkans, Turkey provided scholarships to Balkan students to enable them to continue their education. Following the Cold War, Turkey was more active in the Balkans, not in the exercise of ‘hard power’ but in the exercise of ‘soft power’; the professor argued, however, that soft power does not mean much when not backed up by hard power. The last four to five years have seen a new approach in Turkish foreign policymaking vis-à-vis the Balkans; Bilgiç pointed out that Turkish policymaking has been careful to emphasize the ‘inviolability’ of its existing borders, in line with the position of its Western neighbors, and the Balkans seem to have been remembered or imagined as a ‘lost land’ in academic circles.
Dimitar Bechev, Senior Fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, explained that the situation in the Western Balkans is currently ‘a mixed bag’ as the enlargement process is continuing, and in the mid-term, the Western Balkan countries will become EU members. He added that Turkey has been able to take advantage of the gaps left by the crisis and in Western nations’ policies, stressing that Turkey is not an outsider to the region but rather is part of it.
Bechev highlighted the economic benefits which Turkey has reaped for the Western Balkan region, explaining that Turkey’s participation in the Customs Union enables the country to engage with, train and invest in the Balkans, and this highlights the importance of EU integration. However, despite compatibility between Turkey and the Western Balkans, there are of course still problems; Bechev added that Turkish policymakers do not have as much time to devote to the Balkans as in the past due to the on-going Syria crisis.
Bechev also pointed out the “NATO card” that Turkey possess for the countries in Western Balkans, underscoring that Turkey’s support to states in the region willing to join NATO is, indeed, a source of leverage and potency for Turkey’s presence in Western Balkans. He stressed that Turkey and the EU have similar policies towards the Western Balkans, and while Turkey is normally “shunned” by the EU, he argued that the country has done exceptionally well and offers important economic opportunities to the region and the current situation needs to be examined.
Kerem Oktem, Senior Associate Member at St Antony’s College at Oxford University, stated that over the last few years, Turkey’s role as an important global actor has changed and its power is now rather “stagnant”, due to its receding EU membership perspective and slower economic growth. Oktem explained that Turkey must not allow its loss of integrity and power to spill over into the Western Balkan region. He argued that the language of religious brotherhood as well as Ottoman identity and history should be re-emphasized in favor of a language of economic cooperation and development. He explained that current flagship projects conducted by TIKA, Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency, with a strong focus on religion and Ottoman architecture do not portray an inclusive image and that the Turkish government should think about projects which are more inclusive, adding that civil societies, such as the Hizmet movement, have an important role to play in ensuring actors in the Balkans do not “buy into” the religious and cultural identity promoted by the Turkish government.
Axel Walldén, Advisor for Enlargement at the European Commission, stated that there are no major problems in relations between Turkey and non-EU Western Balkan countries, and noted that there is a “special relationship” between Turkey and the Western Balkans. He added that Turkey`s economic presence is important and ever-rising, though far smaller than that of the EU. For example, in 2012, its trade with the Western Balkan region was €1.6 billion, a mere 0.5% of Turkish total external trade. Walldén echoed the fact that Turkey has been very active in the Western Balkans since the Cold War and the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia. Politically, Turkey has participated in the international interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. It is one of the main contributors to the on-going peace-keeping operations there and helped to normalize the relations between Serbia and Bosnia. It has also developed excellent relations with Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo, Montenegro and, since 2009, Serbia. He added, however, that Turkey’s actions in the region have not been without criticism.
Overall, Turkey`s presence in the Western Balkans contributes to regional stability, and converges with and complements EU goals and policies. This is particularly noteworthy as it is a clear contrast to the early 20th century, when Turkey and European powers found themselves in a permanent state of rivalry, he added. He stressed his confidence that EU-Turkey relations in the Western Balkans will remain harmonious and constructive, as long as Turkey remains anchored to the EU path, and he argued that Turkey’s European and accession perspectives are the best way to ensure that this is done. He noted that it would be unfortunate if otherwise welcome closer ties between Turkey and the Balkans were not to be forged on the basis of European values and standards, especially in the field of democracy. He also noted that recent Turkish policies in the Balkans and elsewhere are a reflection of Turkey’s increased weight and dynamism. The challenge for both Ankara and partners would be to adapt constructively to this appel de force, which would mean more prudent management of Turkey’s increased power, particularly in the Western Balkan region. He added that the EU could also take more account of Turkey’s legitimate issues and concerns.
Professor Bestami Bilgiç noted that Turkey has the capacity to speak various “languages”, and that one language which the EU is unable to speak in the Western Balkans is that of religion. While the EU can be an important mediator in the region, he stressed that the most favourable situation would be one where Turkey and the EU could “get together” and cooperate in their dialogue toward the region. Dimitar Bechev echoed the sentiment that Turkey has several “faces” and can appeal to a wider set of people, although more could be done in terms of human rights, public diplomacy and economic relations.
With regards to business in the region, Kerem Oktem warned that putting a stop to the Turkish government’s tendency to turn Balkan issues into domestic policy issues would give Turkey a much stronger position. He called on the Turkish government to stop concentrating on ideas and frameworks based on Turkey’s historical legacy on the region, and stressed that a more business-related relationship and economic discourse would be the most sensible solution. Oktem also highlighted the importance of Turkey’s credibility, as it has a huge impact on Balkan communities, and he warned that Turkey should not only represent itself as a conservative or religious actor.
Axel Walldén warned that bilateral issues must never stand in the way of the accession process, and added that member states must not only “Europeanize” themselves, but should also bring their own cultural values to the table. He also warned that harsh declarations should be avoided, as they make it more difficult to find solutions.
In terms of the role of Russia in the region, Oktem warned of the danger that Turkey may, like Russia, present the option of “development without democracy” which, despite its advantages, would not have a positive outcome for relations between Turkey and the Western Balkans, and he stressed that the EU must be an important actor in this field. Professor Bilgiç stressed his confidence that Turkey will continue to cooperate with the EU in the Western Balkans, even if it decides to withdraw its application for EU membership. He stressed Turkey’s desire for peace and stability in the region, which would help the Turkish government continue to build on its economic strengths.